The Dharma Seal of the Plum Village tradition is “I have arrived, I am home.” While the “home” in this case is non-geographic in nature, it is reasonable to say that for the past fifteen years Deer Park Monastery has indeed been a home for me, my wife Karen, and our daughter Xinwan. It has been a refuge to return to ourselves, and to each other, and to connect with many teachers and fellow practitioners whom we deeply love and respect. It provides the opportunity to learn and practice the many trainings and skillful means offered for the benefit of everyone by our teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh (“Thay”).
Since our family has attended many retreats and special events at Deer Park over the years, it could easily be assumed that our experiences would have consistently been ones of blissful ease and relaxation. Thay has often said that going on a retreat is not to escape the world, but to have an intimate encounter with reality. Thay’s assertion certainly helps describe my family’s experiences— significantly and meaningfully so.
We became a family of three when Karen and I adopted our daughter Xinwan in 2004. I had wanted to go to Deer Park for some time, so when I heard that Thay was going to be leading a retreat there in 2005, I jumped at the chance. This was immediately following his landmark return to Vietnam earlier that year, and there was an accompanying rumor that his U.S. tour that year might be his last.
It’s a bit comical to think back on it now, but that false rumor was what pushed us to bring our family of three, including our then two-year-old daughter Xinwan, to attend that retreat. This seemed like a crazy idea considering not only the young age of our daughter, but the challenges we were experiencing as a family under the full impact of intense trauma. Between our family’s pervasive level of distress, big crowds, and triple-digit heat, our first retreat experience at Deer Park was intensely stressful and challenging. Despite the difficulty of the experience, we carefully weighed a number of varied and compelling considerations, and decided it was important to return to Deer Park. We resolved to give their annual Family Retreat the following year a try. After that, we kept coming back.
Although Karen and I (especially Karen) didn’t get to attend most scheduled activities at a retreat for a number of years, we continued returning to Deer Park and enjoying and appreciating what we experienced there. This gave me the opportunity to adjust my expectations about what form a retreat experience would actually take. In fact, the difficult experience we had, provided us with an excellent opportunity to embody the practice.
Looking back on those experiences now, something that emerges is how simply being present for what was happening offered us years of deep and profoundly valuable retreat experiences. Admittedly, this was not always easy for us to recognize and appreciate at the time, but in line with Thay’s assertion, our experiences were definitely real and ultimately deeply beneficial.
Learning to be with oneself, while wonderfully transformative, is often far from a comfortable experience. But it is a key experience if we are to begin waking up and engaging with the process of healing. Deer Park is a place where this direct encounter with oneself, and with life, is possible. This makes healing possible. The fact that the community there welcomed us, accepted us as we were, and allowed us to have the experiences we were having, whatever form they took, was a precious gift to our family.
As we returned to Deer Park, Xinwan quickly came to greatly appreciate and enjoy one of the most beneficial characteristics the monastery has to offer those who come from the city: a place close to nature that is safe, and where you are surrounded by a truly caring and accepting community. Many of the Sisters and Brothers there continue to be some of our most valued, treasured, and inspiring teachers. We feel deeply grateful to them and to the Deer Park community for so much friendship, acceptance, wisdom, and love. It is also important to Karen and me, as white parents who adopted transracially, that Deer Park is a place attended by many people of color and populated by many wonderful role models with non-white faces. For many reasons it has been the type of environment in which we would most want to be.
When we come to Deer Park, the sights, sounds, and smells of the monastery continue to fill us with a familiar and comforting sense of serenity and joy. The retreats themselves are often like happy family reunions. The people with whom we’ve shared retreat experiences over the years have become some of our most beloved friends. We are deeply fortunate to have the opportunity to be able to drive for only a couple of hours to be at such a special place, and to be able to benefit from the teaching and practices which help us navigate the many challenges of living on our precious planet.
Xinwan has grown up at Deer Park, and Deer Park has also grown along with her, updating and adjusting its retreat strategies over the years to more appropriately and effectively address the needs of visiting families. Because of my family’s experience over our years of going there, whenever we encounter families who are experiencing difficulties while attempting to partake of the helpful and illuminating activities offered at retreats there, one piece of advice we often find ourselves offering is, “If you can, keep coming.” The potential benefit of doing so could be immeasurable—even if it means not being able to attend any of the official activities that are offered.
I can’t think of another Buddhist practice center outside those of the Plum Village tradition that can offer something so wonderfully profound to families with children of all ages, especially to those experiencing stressful challenges. If we are to ultimately realize that, to quote Thay, “afflictions are no other than enlightenment,” then we need places to go where those seeds of awakening in us can be skillfully and lovingly watered. Deer Park is such a place.
Deer Park Monastery is a home where one can return to one’s true home, the present moment. As Thay has said, “There is no way home, home is the way.” For the Cline family, the “home” of Deer Park Monastery is more than a beautiful place where we can cultivate the wisdom of the Buddha, learn Thay’s teachings, and practice helpful strategies for well-being. Deer Park Monastery, together with its community of dedicated practitioners, is indeed a way. It lives within us. We take it wherever we go, in each present moment. We wish Deer Park a very happy 20th anniversary, and look forward to many more years of sharing its many wonderful gifts with all who come there.
Bowing deeply in gratitude and love,
Alex Cline (Chan Phat Son, True Buddha Mountain), Karen Cline (Loving Embrace of the Heart) and Xinwan Cline (Healing Soul Mate of the Heart)